Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

Black History goes on: “You’re so brown!”

Today’s guest post is by Kristen Howerton, wife, mother of 4 (2 adopted), blogger, and psych professor at Vanguard University.


“Mommy, look at the brown boy!”

As a transracial family in a mostly vanilla town, we hear these kind of comments every now and then, especially from other preschool-aged kids. This week, we heard on two different occasions.

No biggie: it is perfectly normal for a child of that age to notice color. I mean, they are just learning colors and pointing it out is just an observation. I am NEVER offended by children making such comments. In fact, it can open up great learning opportunities for kids to understand adoption, difference, etc.

However, one of the circumstances this week was a bit awkward. A little girl pointed to my African-American son Jafta, and this was how the dialogue went:

CURIOUS GIRL: Mommy, do you see him!?! He’s brown!

MORTIFIED MOM: (clearly embarrassed) Honey, be quiet.

CURIOUS GIRL: Mommy, do you see? Do you see that boy?

MORTIFIED MOM: Sweetie, be quiet. Be quiet right now.

CURIOUS GIRL: But mommy, look! He’s brown.

MORTIFIED MOM: (now angrily) If you don’t stop saying that right now, I will give you a


I totally get where this mom is coming from. I can imagine doing this myself, in another setting. But think for a minute what this interchange communicated to this little girl about color difference. What message did this well-meaning mom unintentionally send to her daughter, and to my son, who was watching the whole thing?

Avoiding the topic of race can be one of the biggest mistakes parents make in raising healthy, race-conscious children. Shaming, ignoring, or avoiding a child’s observations on race can send a strong message: racial difference (and/or brown skin) is so bad and so embarrasing that we can’t even talk about it. (Kinda reminds ya of how some families deal with sex, huh?)

So how should someone react? I don’t know the perfect answer, but encouraging a conversation (instead of stifling it) is a good start. As parents we have to manage our own racial baggage to help our kids avoid their own.

So let me tell you about the other interchange that happened this week.

A little girl pointed to Jafta and said, “You’re so brown.” And my husband said, “Did you hear that, Jafta? Say thank you.”

And he did. With a big grin on his face.

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8 Responses to “Black History goes on: “You’re so brown!””

  1. I love this…I can so relate to this post Kristen.

    In fact–near same dialogue with a little one last week…”why are you so white and your girl is so black?”
    But it’s a genuine question…coming from a simple observation.
    Or the young boy who asked me, “Are you going to teach her to talk English?” (Never mind that Lydi joined us within the first week of her life :)
    Another genuine question…I’m not offended. Little ones often just say the very things adults are wondering themselves.
    Thank you for opening the door for gracious dialogue.
    And I loved your husband’s response.

  2. I also love this! Thank you for your perspective. It’s so hard to convince people that talking about and acknowledging race is not the same as racism. We have swung to the extreme of pretending it doesn’t even exist. I personally think it’s just a whole new form of racism. If we’re afraid to even acknowledge it, doesn’t that imply there’s something wrong about it? Let’s celebrate that there are differences and praise our God who made us all!

  3. I really love this. I’ve found with my own very young kids that questions like this are in the same category as being amazed at red curly hair, or straight blond hair. We usually respond the same way for hair, or skin or eye color: “Yes, isn’t it great that God has made so many beautiful types of hair” OR “Yes, isn’t is wonderful God made so many beautiful colors of skin?” One time, when I was expecting, we were talking about what the new baby would be like. “I wonder whether the baby will have blue or green eyes?” one older child asked. And our five year old said, “I wonder if her skin will be light or brown?” We thought it was very sweet.

    Thank you Noel for sharing all these wonderful women with us this month!

  4. Once, long ago, while talking with grandchildren we were speaking of skin color. And then I added, “Wouldn’t it have been interesting if God had let some be striped like tigers or spotted like pinto ponies!”

    I still think that would have been pretty cool.

  5. What a great post!
    We recently adopted a 7 year old boy who has 5 biological brothers and sisters that are black (he himself is mostly white w/ a quarter Japanese genes and I don’t think ever understood why he looked so different than the others).
    Right after adopting him, I found out I was pregnant. He asked me, “Mom, will you love this baby if it comes out black?” My first answer was, “Of course I will!” Only after reassurance of my love for any baby the Lord gives us did I do a little bit of genetic explaining to him on how we inherit skin color through biological parents.

  6. What a cheerfully offered word of caution. Thank you for sharing! Those of us whose families are one shade of tan, sadly struggle to avoid both ignorance and offence. You have enriched my life today:)

  7. Lovely post. When my daughter points out a difference in a another person I usually respond with “Yes, that’s true.” and then say to the person “I hope you are not offended.” and usually the person smiles, says it’s fine, and proceeds to speak directly with my child about whatever it is (skin, disability, etc.). Which has been wonderful because my daughter gets to engage with new people and not just look at them.

  8. EPIC! Absolutely EPIC! :) Thank you for sharing!

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